graffiti

I have a 1969 American Heritage Dictionary that I checked for graffiti. Instead I found graffito, a noun and usually plural, defined as a crude drawing or inscription scratched on stone, plaster or some other hard surface so as to be seen by the public.

That definition is a good description of drawings found in ancient caves or the hieroglyphics in Egypt and on rocks throughout the west left by native Indians.

Modern graffiti has been traced to Philadelphia in the 1960s when three names began appearing on public buildings, TOPCAT 126, Cornbread and Cool Earl. It wasn't long until TOPCAT moved on and his signature began appearing in New York City.

Social scientists told city officials it was just young people's form of protest. Trouble was the numbers of bright, bold and often obscene words grew as many more "wannabe" artists joined the movement. By the 1980s these young protesters tired of buildings and moved to the subway to paint cars. Now it was art on the move.

To the public's demand to do something police started arresting the offenders when they could catch them. Their method of applying paint had improved with cans of spray paint. The work moved faster but it was also messier.

Back in Philadelphia where it all started even though TOPCAT 126 had moved on the number of graffiti artists had exploded. A graffiti-removal initiative began but this was expensive and entailed many hours of labor. There had to be a better answer.

Creative minds from the city government and the public developed a plan to provide a productive outlet for the graffiti writers. Since the 1930s the city had a tradition of mural-making. In 1984 a public-private entity Mural Arts Program (MAP) was formed. A mural artist was named director. She was to reach out to graffiti artists and direct their efforts to beautifying their neighborhoods with public art.

Did the program work? Today there are 2700 murals, the product of weeks or even months of meetings with neighborhood citizens and the artist discussing subjects to be depicted in the murals. These completed works are striking in color and size. Most rise two to three stories high. The tallest is 11 stories. On completion they are turned over to the rightful owners, the community, to serve as a continual source of pride and inspiration.

The MAP program began to entice graffiti writers but expanded to include a much larger audience. It provides workshops in recreation and community centers across the city to 3000 young people annually. There are no fees for these classes because of the support of the city, numerous corporations, foundations and private donors.

Each October Mural Arts Month is celebrated with special events attended by more than 5000 people. Philadelphia found a positive response to a problem. The ugly was replaced with beauty.

Dorothy Copus Brush is a Fairfield Glade resident and Crossville Chronicle staffwriter whose column is published each Wednesday. She may be reached at dcb1@frontiernet.net.

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